With “The Shadow Box” in December, Circle in the Square struggled back to life with a fine production of a play that after just 15 years failed to meet the test of time. With “Uncle Vanya,” the reverse is the case, a lifeless, aimless presentation of a century-old play that has not only stood the test of time but is currently so in vogue that several readings are available to the Chekhov enthusiast.
The pity is that with Tom Courtenay in the title role, Circle in the Square has the makings of a fine “Vanya.” Courtenay, at least in the first three acts, movingly conveys the supine dissipation of a man who has devoted his life’s labor to the support of his brother-in-law, Serebryakov (Werner Klemperer), whom he has only recently come to realize is not an intellectual paragon, but a third-rate academic.
Courtenay capably plumbs the depths of Vanya’s sadness and humiliation as he falls under the spell of Serebryakov’s alluring new wife, Yelena (Amanda Donohoe).
But the performance, indeed the whole production, falls apart in Vanya’s fourth-act confrontation with Serebryakov and the smaller series of tantrums that follow, which ultimately seem closer to the conclusion of “Rumpelstiltskin” than to what’s arguably Chekhov’s bleakest comedy.
And by that time, everything else about the production has long since gone awry, from the miscasting of every other major role to Braham Murray’s generic staging and Loren Sherman’s equally vacant design.
Reviewing a National Theatre production of the play 30 years ago — with Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright and Rosemary Harris, no less — Harold Clurman complained that “mannerism often takes the place of mood” and that the “stylized plain wood setting … suggests hardly any place either actual or symbolic, only a kind of literal dead end, wholly juiceless. The loneliness and ennui of Chekhov’s world may be stultifying, but they are never dry.” How aptly those words fit here.
As Astrov — the doctor and conservationist whose charisma and bristling creativity make him irresistible even to Yelena — James Fox is a stiff. Where passion is required, as when Astrov describes the defoliation of the forests, Fox is egregious, a prattling bore.
Donohoe plays Yelena as coy and smug; when Astrov describes her swaying sensuousness, we look in vain for any sign of it in the performance.
Klemperer’s idea of conveying Serebryakov’s tyrannical mediocrity is to play him as a hypochondriacal buffoon, while Kate Skinner’s Sonya isn’t even in the modest league represented here.
Obviously constrained by the Circle’s full arena space, Loren Sherman has provided the sparest of settings; the only impression that lasts is of the raw planked flooring, and it’s not good. Neither is Murray’s perfunctory staging, though it, too, is handcuffed by the space.
Who gets it right? Tharon Musser, whose lighting scheme, with its evening yellows seeping into morning brightness, does more to salvage the tone of the play than anything going on onstage; and Mimi Maxmen, whose costumes are fine.
But this “Vanya” never comes to life, and it pales before the most significant “Vanya” of our time, Andre Gregory’s utterly engrossing “Vanya on 42 nd Street,” adapted for film by Louis Malle, with Wallace Shawn in the title role and Larry Pine as Astrov.
“Vanya on 42nd Street” is the real thing. “Vanya” on 50th Street, on the other hand, is stock goods.